Freedom of speech: a history from the forbidden fruit to Facebook



Humans have always sought knowledge, all the way back to Eve.
Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Matthew Sharpe, Deakin University

This essay is part of a series of articles on the future of education.


Free speech is in the news. Not least because several leading universities have adopted a “model code” to protect it on campus. And then there’s the Israel Folau saga, and debate over whether his Instagram post was free speech, or just hate speech.

If the Bible is to be believed, humans have sought knowledge since Eve. They have been disagreeing since Cain and Abel. From long before kings, people have been subject to rulers with a vested interest in controlling what was said and done.

Humans have always had a need to ask big questions and their freedom to ask them has often pushed against orthodoxies. Big questions make many people uneasy. Socrates, killed by the Athenians for corrupting the youth in 399 BCE, is only the most iconic example of what can happen when politics and piety combine against intellectuals who ask too many questions.

Or questions of the wrong kind.

In all this, there’s an implicit idea we understand the basic meaning of “free speech”, and we are all entitled to it. But what does it really mean, and how entitled are we?

Where does it come from?

The Ancient Greek Cynics – who valued a simple life, close to nature – valorised “parrhesia” or frank speech as an ethical, not a legal thing. Ancient polytheism (the belief in many gods) made the idea of religious intolerance unheard of, outside of condemning the odd philosopher.

But it was only in the 17th and 18th centuries that arguments for religious tolerance and the freedoms of conscience and speech took the forms we now take for granted.




Read more:
Explainer: what is free speech?


Protestantism, which began in Europe in the early 16th century, challenged the authority of the Catholic Church and its priests to interpret the Bible. Protestants appealed to individuals’ consciences and championed the translation of the Holy Book into the languages of ordinary people.

Protestant thinker John Locke argued, in 1689, that no person can compel another’s God-given conscience. Therefore, all attempts to do this should be forbidden.

At the same time, philosophers began to challenge the limits of human knowledge concerning God, immortality and the mysteries of faith.

People who claim the right to persecute others believe they know the truth. But the continuing disagreements between different religious sects speaks against the idea God has delivered his truth uniquely and unambiguously to any one group.

We are condemned by the limits of our knowledge to learn to tolerate our differences. But not at any cost.

We are condemned by the limits of our knowledge to learn to tolerate our differences.
from shutterstock.com

Defending freedom of conscience and speech is not an unlimited prospect. None of the great 18th century advocates of free speech, such as Voltaire, accepted libel, slander, defamation, incitements to violence, treason or collusion with foreign powers, as anything other than crimes.

It was not intolerant to censor groups who expressed a wish to overthrow the constitution. Or those who would harm members of a population who committed no offences. It was not intolerant to sanction individuals who incite violence against members of other religious or racial groups, solely on grounds of their group identities.




Read more:
After Charlottesville, how we define tolerance becomes a key question


At stake in these limits of free speech is what 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill called the “harm principle”. According to this idea, supposedly free speech that causes or incites harm to others is not truly “free” at all.

Such speech attacks the preconditions of civil debate, which requires a minimum of respect and safety for one’s opponents.

Mill also held that a good society should allow a diversity of views to be presented without fear or favour. A group in which unquestioned orthodoxy prevails may miss evidence, reason badly, and be unduly influenced by political pressures (making sure the “right” view is maintained).

A society should be able to check different views against each other, refute and rectify errors, and ideally achieve a more comprehensive and truer set of beliefs.

Freedom of debate

Critics of Mill’s diversity ideal have said it mistakes society for a university seminar room. They contend politicians and academics have a more qualified sense of the value of seeking knowledge than impartial inquirers.

This criticism points to the special place of universities when it comes to concerns surrounding freedom of speech, past and present.




Read more:
Dan Tehan wants a ‘model code’ on free speech at universities – what is it and do unis need it?


When the great medieval universities were founded, they were established as autonomous corporations, as against private businesses or arms of public government.

If free inquiry to cultivate educated citizens was to flourish, the thought was, it must be insulated from the pressures of economic and political life. If an intellectual is a paid spokesman of a company or government, they will have strong incentives to suppress inconvenient truths, present only parts of the evidence, and to attack opponents, not their arguments, so as to lead critics from the trail.

A large part of the medieval syllabus, especially in the Arts faculties, consisted of teaching students how to question and debate competing opinions. The medieval summas reflect this culture: a form of text where propositions were raised, counter-propositions considered and rebutted, and comprehensive syntheses sought.

Students were taught to debate by putting forward an argument and addressing counter-arguments.
Jonathan Sharp/Unsplash

This is not to deny some counter-positions were beyond the pale. It served a person well to entertain them only as “the devil’s advocate”.

And at different times, certain propositions were condemned. For instance, the so called “Condemnations” of 1210-1277 at the medieval University of Paris, constrained a set of teachings considered heretical. These included teachings of Aristotle such as that human acts are not ruled by the providence of God and that there was never a first human.

At other times, books considered immoral by the Roman Catholic Church were burnt or put on the Index of prohibited works. And those that published such works, such as the 12th Century philosopher and poet Peter Abelard, were imprisoned.

Such practices would survive well into the 18th century in Catholic France, when encyclopedist Denis Diderot suffered a similar fate.

Early modern forms of scientific inquiry challenged the medieval paradigm. It was felt to rely too much on an established canon of authorities and so neglect peoples’ own experiences and capacities to reason on what these experiences revealed about the world.




Read more:
What exactly is the scientific method and why do so many people get it wrong?


Philosopher Francis Bacon, sometimes known as the father of empiricism, argued we cannot rely on the books of professors. New ways of asking questions and testing provisionally held hypotheses about the world should become decisive.

Since nature is so vast, and humans so limited, we would also need to inquire as part of a shared scientific culture, rather than placing our faith in individual geniuses.

Each inquirer would have to submit her results and conclusions to the scrutiny and testing of their peers. Such dialogue alone could make sure anyone’s ideas were not the fancies of an isolated dreamer.

Without this form of freedom of inquiry, with active fostering of dissenting voices, there could be no sciences.

Where are we now?

People from different political camps agonise about the fate of free speech. Those on the right point to humanities departments, arguing an artificial, unrepresentative conformism presides there. Those on the left have long pointed to economics and business departments, levelling similar accusations.

All the while, all departments are subject to the changing fate of universities that have lost a good deal of their post-medieval independence from political and economic forces.

So, the situation is not as simple as the controversies make it.

On one hand, charges of ideological closure need to be balanced against the way a certain (already discovered) truth exerts what philosopher and political analyst Hannah Arendt termed a coercive value.

No one is intellectually “free”, in any real sense, to claim the earth is flat. Blind denial of overwhelming evidence, however inconvenient, is not an exercise of liberty.




Read more:
No, you’re not entitled to your opinion


On the other hand, in more behavioural disciplines like politics, there is no one truth. When learning about social structures, to not consider conservatives as well as progressives is to foreclose students’ freedom of inquiry.

To teach a single economic perspective as unquestionably “scientific”, without considering its philosophical assumptions and historical failings, is likewise to do free inquiry (and our students) a disservice.

The question of how we should teach openly anti-liberal, anti-democratic thinkers is more complex. But surely to do so without explaining to students the implications of these thinkers’ ideas, and how they have been used by malign historical forces, is once more to sell intellectual freedom (and our democracy) short.

The final curve ball in free speech debates today comes from social media. Single remarks made anywhere in the world can now be ripped from their context, “go viral”, and cost someone their livelihood.

Freedom of speech, to be meaningful, depends on the ability of people of differing opinions to state their opinions (so long as their opinions are not criminal and don’t incite hatred or violence) without fear that, by doing so, they will be jeopardising their own and loved ones’ well-being.

When such conditions apply, as the Colonel used to say on Hogan’s Heroes, “we have ways of making you talk”. And also ways of keeping people silent.The Conversation

Matthew Sharpe, Associate Professor in Philosophy, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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What did Galaxy’s poll tell us about freedom of speech and 18C? Not what the IPA said it did


Andrew Jakubowicz, University of Technology Sydney

In evidence to the parliamentary inquiry into freedom of speech on Tuesday, the Institute for Public Affairs (IPA) think-tank tendered a statement based on a survey it had commissioned from Galaxy Research. The Australian newspaper covered this polling as a front-page “exclusive”.

The second paragraph in the IPA’s media release claimed – without evidence – that there was set to be much surprise among the media and the political class that 95% of Australians think “free speech matters”.

The release then reported that 48% of people supported removing the words “insult” and “offend” from Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

The IPA actually wants the whole of 18C removed. But the way forward since then-prime minister Tony Abbott baulked at the gate on the changes proposed by his attorney-general, George Brandis, in 2014 has been this apparently minor surgery to the less serious end of the unlawful quartet (the others being “humiliate” and “intimidate”).

But is the IPA’s statement a fair reading of the Galaxy polling? And was the research fair to start with?

Questions of methodology and polling

According to a Galaxy spokesperson whom I spoke with on Tuesday, no attempt was made to ensure the sample included a representative component of Indigenous and non-Anglo or overseas-born Australians.

Such data was not collected as part of the study as the client (the IPA) had not asked for it, so the results could not be profiled on these criteria. Yet these are the people 18C is mostly designed to protect.

Chances are that an average online panel (the Galaxy polling was done mainly online) won’t include many Indigenous people, people with poor English, or people from minority refugee communities – that is, the primary targets of race hate speech. We had to work hard to ensure our online survey on a similar issue included enough minority-group Australians to ensure statistical accuracy.

The IPA research was two questions in the regular Galaxy omnibus survey, which seeks to control only for age, gender and region. It also looks at shopping patterns.

The first question was:

How important is freedom of speech to you?

This was designed to position the respondent positively to the question and its point of view.

The second question was:

Do you approve or disapprove of the proposal to change the Racial Discrimination Act so that it is no longer unlawful to “offend” or “insult” someone because of their race or ethnicity? It will still be unlawful to “humilitate” or “intimidate” someone because of their race or ethnicity.

This aims to deliver the coup de grâce that reinforces the desired outcome.

So, more than 95% of those polled thought freedom of speech was important. This is a no-brainer. Had the question been – as other surveys have put it – “Is freedom of speech more important than freedom from hate?”, the percentage of those in favour may well have come down significantly. Or if that question were to be reversed, even more so. But we will never know.

Then the question of removing “insult” and “offend” was put. Less than half of any group supported this. Given the preparatory question and the lack of information about the implications or impact, this is less than one might have predicted.

However, neither Galaxy nor the IPA discussed the most interesting data.

Youth responses show IPA conclusions invalid

In the Galaxy poll, the 18-24 age group had the highest commitment to freedom of speech but the lowest support for removing “insult” and “offend” from 18C – by a long way.

So, a suggestion that a commitment to freedom of speech necessarily carries with it support for amending 18C is simply false. There is no simple correlation. They appear to be independent variables, though mediated by some other factor – probably social media use.

There is a much better explanation which neither Galaxy nor the IPA evoked.

The 18-24 age bracket comprises the true digital natives; a very high proportion are regular users of social media. Our research shows they have the highest rate of encounters with racist hate speech. They are usually witnesses, though sometimes are targets. Most encounters with online hate happen on Facebook (40%), YouTube (20%) and in comment threads on news media site (15%).

Digital natives value freedom. But they also want vulnerable people protected and civility enhanced. And they don’t trust sites like Facebook, YouTube or Google to do that – nor, it must be said, government.

In our research, young people were among the least likely to want offending someone on the basis of race to be lawful, just like those surveyed by Galaxy for the IPA. However, they were more likely to hold a neutral position than older people; they were more reluctant to force regulation, but more aware of what racism did to its targets.

The people most in support of retaining 18C in our study but not in Galaxy’s were the older group, who are far less likely to use social media and thus encounter cyber-racism. In our study, the people most likely to want the right to offend people were those who identified themselves as authors of racist material.

So, it follows that the less racism you encounter that you don’t want to see, the less likely it is that you’ll worry about it. The more you want to freely offend people, the more likely it is you author racist material.

Lucky I read the report – or you’d never have known quite what the IPA was selectively trying to slip through to the inquiry and the press. Be sure, though, that the claim most Australians want 18C gutted in the name of freedom of speech simply is not supported by evidence.

The Conversation

Andrew Jakubowicz, Professor of Sociology, University of Technology Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

American arrested in Britain for declaring homosexuality is sin


An American street preacher has been arrested and fined £1000 in Glasgow for telling passersby, in answer to a direct question, that homosexual activity is a sin. Shawn Holes was kept in jail overnight on March 18, and in the morning pled guilty to charges that he had made “homophobic remarks…aggravated by religious prejudice,” reports Hilary White,LifeSiteNews.com.

Holes, a 47 year-old former wedding photographer from Lake Placid, New York, was in Glasgow as part of a preaching tour of Britain with a group of British and American colleagues. He said, “I was talking generally about Christianity and sin.”

“I only talked about these other issues because I was specifically asked. There were homosexuals listening – around six or eight – who were kissing each other and cuddling, and asking ‘What do you think of this?’” A group of homosexuals approached police with a complaint. Holes later said that the situation seemed like a “set-up by gay campaigners.”

“When asked directly about homosexuality, I told them homosexuals risked the wrath of God unless they accepted Christ.”

The charge, under the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003, has angered freedom of speech advocates in Britain and has even been criticized by homosexualist campaigner Peter Tatchell who called the £1,000 “totally disproportionate.” Local Christians supporting the preaching ministry took up a collection and paid the fine.

Tatchell told the Daily Mail, “The price of freedom of speech is that we sometimes have to put up with opinions that are objectionable and offensive. Just as people should have the right to criticize religion, people of faith should have the right to criticize homosexuality. Only incitements to violence should be illegal.”

Holes relates that at the same time he had been asked for his views on Islam and had said he believed there is only one true Christian God and that the Prophet Mohammed is a “sinner like the rest of us.”

He said that two men who were listening spoke to police officers who approached him and said, “These people say you said homos are going to Hell.”

“I told them I would never say that, because I don’t use the term homo. But I was arrested.”

Peter Kearney, a spokesman for the Catholic Church in Glasgow told the Scotsman, “We supported [hate crime] legislation but it is very difficult to see how this man can be charged for expressing a religious conviction.

“The facts of this case show his statement was clearly his religious belief. Yes, it is strong language he has used, but it is obviously a religious conviction and not a form of discrimination.”

Gordon Macdonald, of Christian Action Research and Education for Scotland, said, “This is a concerning case. I will be writing to Chief Constable Stephen House of Strathclyde Police for clarification of the guidance given to police officers in these situations.”

In related news, a district judge has thrown out the case against another street preacher, Paul Shaw, who was arrested on February 19 in Colchester over comments he made about homosexual activity. Shaw, who did not plead guilty, said, “I’ve preached regularly for about three or four years without incident.

“In four years, I’ve only dealt with homosexuality about twice.” Shaw told the judge that he was obliged to act according to his conscience and that homosexuality was a significant issue in Britain today. The case was dismissed through lack of evidence and written testimony from complainants.

Shaw said, “My reasons were twofold. Firstly, there is a consequence for the country and society if society does not appreciate the difference between right and wrong, particularly noticeable by homosexuality.

“As a nation, we are coming under God’s judgment not very far away in the future and there will be terrible consequences for this if it is not made unlawful again. Secondly, on a personal level, as with all other sins, it needs to be repented of in order to enter the Kingdom of God.”

District Judge David Cooper told Shaw, “There are other sorts of ‘sins’. Do you think you could concentrate on those for a bit?”

Meanwhile, a new study conducted on behalf of religious think-tank Theos has shown that nearly 1/3 of British people think that Christians are being marginalized and religious freedom has been restricted. The report’s author Professor Roger Trigg, wrote, “A free society should never be in the business of muzzling religious voices, let alone in the name of democracy or feigned neutrality.”

“We also betray our heritage and make our present position precarious if we value freedom, but think that the Christian principles which have inspired the commitment of many to democratic ideals are somehow dispensable,” Professor Trigg said.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

TURKEY: ‘INSULTING TURKISHNESS’ CASE PROCEEDS UNDER REVISED LAW


Ministry of Justice decision suggests spreading Christianity may be unlawful in Turkey.

ISTANBUL, March 20 (Compass Direct News) – Turkey’s decision last month to try two Christians under a revised version of a controversial law for “insulting Turkishness” because they spoke about their faith came as a blow to the country’s record of freedom of speech and religion.

A Silivri court on Feb. 24 received the go-ahead from the Ministry of Justice to try Christians Turan Topal and Hakan Tastan under the revised Article 301 – a law that has sparked outrage among proponents of free speech as journalists, writers, activists and lawyers have been tried under it. The court had sent the case to the Ministry of Justice after the government on May 8, 2008 put into effect a series of changes – which critics have called “cosmetic” – to the law.

The justice ministry decision came as a surprise to Topal and Tastan and their lawyer, as missionary activities are not illegal in Turkey. Defense lawyer Haydar Polat said no concrete evidence of insulting Turkey or Islam has emerged since the case first opened two years ago.

“The trial will continue from where it left off – to be honest, we thought they wouldn’t give permission [for the case to continue],” said Polat, “because there was no persuasive evidence of ‘degrading Turkishness and Islam’ in the case file.”

A Ministry of Justice statement claimed that approval to try the case came in response to the original statement by three young men – Fatih Kose, Alper Eksi and Oguz Yilmaz – that Topal and Tastan were conducting missionary activities in an effort to show that Islam was a primitive and fictitious religion that results in terrorism, and to portray Turks as a “cursed people.”

Prosecutors have yet to produce any evidence indicating the defendants described Islam in these terms, and Polat said Turkey’s constitution grants all citizens freedom to choose, be educated in and communicate their religion, making missionary activities legal.

“This is the point that really needs to be understood,” said Polat. “In Turkey, constitutionally speaking it is not a crime to be a Christian or to disseminate the Christian faith. However, in reality there have been problems.”

The lawyer contended that prosecuting lawyers have given political dimensions to the case by rendering baseless accusations in a nationalistic light.

“From their point of view, missionary activity carried out by missionaries of imperialistic countries is harmful for Turkish culture and the country overall,” Polat said.

Tastan said that although he has always been confident that he and Topal will be acquitted, the decision of the Ministry of Justice to try them under Article 301 left him deeply disappointed in his own country.

“After this last hearing, I realized that I didn’t feel as comfortable as I had been in the past,” Tastan told Compass. “I believed that surely the Ministry of Justice would never make the decision they did.”

Tastan said he was uneasy that his country would deem his Christian faith as insulting to the very Turkishness in which he takes pride.

“This is the source of my uneasiness: I love this country so much, this country’s people, that as a loving Turk who is a Christian to be tried for insulting Turkey has really cut me up,” said Tastan. “Because I love this nation, I’ve never said anything against it. That I’m a Christian, yes, I say that and I will continue to do so. But I think they are trying to paint the image that we insult, dislike and hate Turks. This really makes me sad and heartsick.”

If nothing else, Tastan said, the trial has provided an opportunity for Turkish Christians to show God’s love and also make themselves known to their compatriots. He called the ministerial decision duplicitous.

“A government that talks the European Union talk, claims to respect freedom, democracy, and accept everyone, yet rejects me even though I’m a Turkish citizen who is officially a Christian on his ID card, has made me sad,” he said. “That’s why I’m disappointed.”

 

No-Shows

At the time of their arrests, Topal and Tastan were volunteers with The Bible Research Center, which last week acquired official association status and is now called “The Society for Propagating Knowledge of the Bible.” In the last court hearing, prosecutors demanded that further inquiries be conducted into the nature of the association since the defendants used their contact lists to reach people interested in Christianity.

“Because they think like this, they believe that the Bible center is an important unit to the missionary activities,” said Polat. “And they allege that those working at this center are also guilty.”

The court has yet to decide whether police can investigate the Christian association.

Polat and the defendants said they believe that as no evidence has been presented, the case should come to a conclusion at the next hearing on May 28.

“From a legal standpoint, we hope that they will acquit us, that it will be obvious that there is no proof,” said Tastan. “There have only been allegations … none of the witnesses have accused us in court. I’m not a legal expert, but I believe that if there is no proof and no evidence of ‘insulting,’ then we should be set free.”

The initial charges prepared by the Silivri state prosecutor against Tastan and Topal were based on “a warning telephone call to the gendarme” claiming that Christian missionaries were trying to form illegal groups in local schools and insulting Turkishness, the military and Islam.

Despite a court summons sent to the Silivri and Istanbul gendarme headquarters requesting six gendarme soldiers to testify as prosecution witnesses, none have stepped forward to do so. At a June 24, 2008 hearing, two witnesses for the prosecution declared they did not know the defendants and had never seen them before facing them in the courtroom. Several witnesses – including one of the original complainants, Kose – have failed to show up on various trial dates.

“We believe the case has arrived to a concluding stage, because all evidence has been collected and the witnesses have been heard,” Polat said. “We believe the accused will be dismissed. The inverse would surprise us.”

Polat underlined that while the case shows that human rights violations in Turkey are still a “serious problem,” it is also true that Turkey’s desire to join the European Union has brought sincere efforts to improve democratic processes. He attested, however, that establishing a true democracy can be a long process that requires sacrifices.

“It is my conviction that there is no other way for people to believe in and establish democracy than through struggle,” he said.

Tastan added that he sees hope that the notion that being “Turkish” means being Muslim is breaking. Due to exposure to media coverage of the murder trial of the April 18, 2007 slaughter of three Christians in Malatya, he said, Turks are becoming aware that there are fellow citizens who are Christians and are even dying for their Lord.

“This makes me happy, because it means freedom for the Turkish Christians that come after us,” said Tastan. “At least they won’t experience these injustices. I believe we will accomplish this.”

For the time being, though, the Ministry of Justice’s decision that Tastan and Topal can be tried under the revised Article 301 law appears to contribute to the belief that to promulgate a non-Islamic faith in Turkey is tantamount to treason. As Turkish online human rights magazine Bianet headlined its coverage of the decision, “Ministerial Edict: You Can Be a Christian But Do Not Tell Anyone!”  

Report from Compass Direct News

CHINA: CHRISTIANS WARY AS RECESSION, UNREST HIT


Beleaguered government officials could view church as threat – or a force for stability.

BEIJING, February 25 (Compass Direct News) – With China’s central government last December issuing a number of secret documents calling on provincial officials to strive to prevent massive unrest in a rapidly collapsing economy, observers are watching for signs of whether authorities will view Christian groups as a threat or a stabilizing influence.

While the Sichuan earthquake last May proved that Christians were willing and able to assist in times of national crisis, raids on house church groups have continued in recent weeks.

The secret reports have come in quick succession. A central government body, the Committee for Social Stability (CSS), issued an internal report on Jan. 2 listing a total of 127,467 serious protests or other incidents across China in 2008, many involving attacks on government buildings or clashes with police and militia.

“Recently every kind of contradiction in society has reached the level of white heat,” the CSS warned in an earlier document issued on Dec. 16.

The document said some officials had “ignored the welfare of the masses … piling up pressure until the situation exploded,” and concluded that, “The relevant Party and State organs must … give daily priority to the task of getting rid of all the maladies which produce social instability and the present crisis.”

On Dec. 10, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the National People’s Congress issued an internal document calling on senior provincial officials to make every effort to alleviate social and political problems exacerbated by the current recession.

On Dec. 12, the Ministry of Public Security authorized provincial officials to tighten control of all communications in the sensitive period prior to Chinese New Year, which this year fell on Jan. 25. Fearing turmoil as millions of newly-unemployed factory workers headed home for New Year celebrations, the government cancelled all leave for Public Security Bureau (PSB) officers, placed them on high alert and mobilized an additional 150,000 police and armed militia for the holiday period.

On Dec. 15, the public security ministry issued a further document calling for tightened security at government ministries, military bases, armament stores, state borders, airports and railway stations.

In its Dec. 16 report, the CSS warned that provincial authorities must try to resolve grievances by non-violent means before protestors begin attacking factories and government offices or stealing, looting and burning property.

The scale of demonstrations and riots has already reached frightening proportions. In the Jan. 2 internal assessment leaked in Hong Kong, the CSS said the 127,467 serious incidents across China last year involved participation of around 1 percent of the population. Of these cases, 476 consisted of attacks on government and Party buildings, while 615 involved violent clashes with police and militia, leaving 1,120 police and Party officials and 724 civilians killed or injured.

 

Church as Subversive

Concerned by the growth of unregistered house church groups in an uncertain political and social climate, the Chinese government has ramped up efforts both to identify Christians and to portray Christianity as a subversive foreign force.

Local governments in China last year reported on continued measures to prevent “illegal” religious gatherings and curb other criminalized religious activities, according to reports from the U.S. Congressional Executive Commission on China (CECC) on Dec. 20 and Feb. 2. (See “Tortured Christian Lawyer Arrested as Officials Deny Abuses,” Feb. 11.)

In recent months authorities have quietly gathered data on church growth using surveys at universities and workplaces, and called meetings at various institutions in the capital to discuss the supposed dangers of foreign religious influence. (See “Officials Grapple with Spread of Christianity,” Feb. 4.)

Raids on unregistered church groups have continued in recent weeks, with police perhaps prompted to ensure tighter controls on church activity. On Feb. 11, police arrested two South Korean pastors and more than 60 Chinese house church leaders from four provinces who had gathered for a seminar in Wolong district, Nanyang city, the China Aid Association (CAA) reported. The police also confiscated personal money, cell phones and books, and forced each person to register and pay a fine before releasing some of the elderly leaders.

Authorities held six of the detained leaders for several days but by Sunday (Feb. 22) had released all of them, Compass sources confirmed.

In Shanghai, police and members of the State Administration of Religious Affairs on Feb. 10 ordered Pastor Cui Quan to cancel an annual meeting for house church leaders, and then ordered the owner of the hall used by Cui’s 1,200-member congregation to cease renting it to Cui within 30 days, according to CAA.

Senior staff at Beijing’s Dianli Hospital on Feb. 6 ordered elderly house church pastor Hua Zaichen to leave the premises despite being severely ill, CAA reported. Government officials had refused to allow Hua’s wife, Shuang Shuying, an early release from prison to visit her dying husband unless she agreed to inform on other Christians, according to Hua’s son. After refusing their offer, Shuang was finally able to visit Hua on her release date, Feb. 8; Hua died the following day.

Both Shuang and her husband have suffered years of persecution for their involvement in the house church movement.

On Feb. 4, police seized Christian lawyer and human rights defender Gao Zhisheng from his home in Shaanxi province, CAA reported. At press time his whereabouts were unknown.

While other incidents have gone unreported, house church leaders in northern China told Compass in January that despite tighter restrictions in the current economic and political climate, they were optimistic about the ability of the church to survive and flourish.

 

SIDEBAR

Disenchantment, Dissent Spread Across China

In December, China celebrated the 30th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s “open door” economic reform policy, which had led to a high annual growth rate of some 10 percent. While Party leaders publicly congratulated themselves, an internal party document warned that 75 percent of the financial benefits had gone to only 10 percent of the population, mainly high and middle-ranking Party members and some entrepreneurs.

With the growth rate now seriously dented, relations between Party members and the general public were “about to explode,” the document warned.

The document also referred to an “ideological vacuum in Party and state,” a “moral vacuum in upholding regulations,” and a “vacuum in spiritual civilization,” in stark contrast to the moral and spiritual values held by religious groups.

According to the Research Institute of the State Council, urban unemployment among young people had already risen to 10.5 percent by last June. If foreign investors continued to withdraw funds, the institute warned, this figure could rise to 16 percent or higher, sparking more outrage against the government.

Tens of thousands of factories closed down in the first six months of 2008, well before the full impact of the global recession hit China. By November, 10 million migrant workers were unemployed; most recent estimates put the figure at 20 million, and officials admit this figure will reach at least 35 million by the end of 2009.

Vice-Premier Hui Liangyu, responsible for agricultural affairs, warned in a recent report that 30 percent of all villagers have set up peasant organizations to challenge local government officials and crime bosses. Some groups also have plans to launch armed insurgencies and their own peasant governments.

Several million university graduates will also face unemployment this year, potentially lending their voices and leadership skills to mass protest movements.

An increasing number of intellectuals have already signed Charter 08, a petition issued in December calling for multi-party elections, human rights, press freedom and the rule of law.

On Jan. 7, a prominent Chinese lawyer, Yan Yiming, filed an application with the Finance Ministry demanding that it open its 2008 and 2009 budget books to the public. On Jan. 13, more than 20 Chinese intellectuals signed an open letter calling for a boycott of state television news programs because of “systematic bias and brainwashing,” while a Beijing newspaper ran an article arguing that freedom of speech was written into the constitution, The Washington Post reported in late January.

In response, Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu warned China’s leaders via state media that, “The present situation of maintaining national security and social stability is grave.”

Many analysts agree that the Chinese Communist Party may be facing its greatest challenge to date.

Report from Compass Direct News

CHINA: OFFICIALS GRAPPLE WITH SPREAD OF CHRISTIANITY


Christians may face increased controls as government reacts to growth, public discontent.

BEIJING, February 4 (Compass Direct News) – Concerned by the growth of unregistered house church groups in an uncertain political and social climate, the Chinese government has ramped up efforts both to identify Christians and to portray Christianity as a subversive foreign force.

Sources told Compass that authorities in recent months have been quietly gathering data on church growth, with surveys at universities and workplaces pointedly asking whether respondents were Christians. The surveys seemed largely unconcerned about other religions.

At the same time, Communist Party officials have called meetings at various institutions in the capital to discuss supposed dangers of foreign religious influence. On Dec. 20 officials called a meeting at one of Beijing’s most prestigious cultural colleges to lecture faculty members about such dangers. A Christian teacher forced to attend told Compass that the lecturers distorted historical facts to impress upon her and her colleagues that Buddhism, Daoism and Islam were “indigenous” and therefore safe. The teacher noted that Islam, having come from the Middle East, could hardly be regarded as indigenous to China, and that Buddhism originally came from India but later took on Chinese characteristics.

By contrast, the officials told the teachers that Protestantism and Roman Catholicism were foreign and hence potentially “subversive.” Party members warned participants to be on guard against these faiths.

China’s leaders have warned that 2009 will be marked by increased unrest and demonstrations as public anger mounts against increasing unemployment and corruption. Also disconcerting to the government is Charter 08, an online pro-democracy initiative launched in mid-December and signed by an increasing number of Chinese Netizens. It calls for an end to the one-party system, an independent court and freedom of speech. Many of the original signatories were well-known pro-democracy lawyers and intellectuals, but the list now includes computer technicians, construction workers and farmers.

In response to these signs and portents of unrest, the government has begun to increase political and social control. Christian leaders told Compass they did not feel a huge crackdown was necessarily imminent, but they said the overall political climate had become more tense and that this would almost certainly affect unregistered house church Christians.

House church leaders in Beijing told Compass that conditions now seemed even “tighter” than in the period leading up to the Olympic Games last August. In previous years Christians rented halls and conference rooms for large-scale Christmas events, but last year’s Christmas celebrations were deliberately low-key.

A house church leader in a major northeastern city confirmed this general sense of caution. He added that he had seen an internal document leaked from the local Religious Affairs Bureau, dated in early January, which warned against “subversion” by supposedly hostile Christian forces from overseas.

The leaders were generally optimistic about the continuing work and growth of the church, with one Beijing pastor claiming more than 1,000 new converts were baptized last year in his group alone.

 

Mixed Signals

Chinese officials last November had initiated talks with Protestant house church Christians, raising hopes for greater freedom.

Meetings organized partly by the China State Council’s Research and Development Center brought together academics and lawyers, many of them house church members, and a delegation of six Protestant house church leaders from Beijing, Henan and Wenzhou. As the Times of London reported in January, however, no Catholic representatives were invited; the Communist Party remains in a political standoff with the Vatican. (See Compass Direct News, “Officials Reach Out to House Churches; Raids, Arrests Continue,” Dec. 9, 2008.)

At the time, church leaders involved in the discussions were cautiously optimistic. Pastor Ezra Jin of Beijing’s Zion Church told the Times, “The government … has understood that the Protestant church is not an opposition force but a force for stability and harmony.” He added that the government wanted to evaluate whether house churches posed a threat to the regime and to ask why they rejected the leadership of the Three Self Patriotic Movement, an official body appointed to oversee Protestant churches.

Despite these talks, house church raids and arrests have continued. On Jan. 16, Public Security Bureau officers forcibly removed pastor Zhang Mingxuan from fellow pastor Hua Huiqi’s house in Beijing and put him on a bus to Henan province, warning him not to return, the China Aid Association (CAA) reported.

Zhang had gone to visit Hua’s ailing father, Hua Zaichen. For years the elderly Hua and his wife, Shuang Shuying, have suffered harassment for their work with the unofficial church. Authorities have now denied Shuang, currently serving a two-year prison sentence, permission to visit her dying husband.

On Jan. 2, police raided a house church meeting in Urumqi, Xinjiang province, detaining 50 people. Later that day, 48 of them were released without charge; another was released after paying a 500 yuan (US$73) fine, and the last was sentenced to 10 days of administrative detention, according to CAA.

On Dec. 3, 2008, members of the Taikang County Domestic Defense Protection Squad burst into a private home in Chuanhui district, Zhoukou municipality, Henan, and arrested 50 Christians gathered there, CAA reported. About 20 of the detainees were sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention while leaders Tang Houyong, Shu Wenxiang and Xie Zhenqi were sentenced to one year of labor and re-education.

Some house church Christians have become more vocal in their calls for justice and religious liberty. For example, following the district court’s dismissal of a lawsuit on behalf of Tang Houyong and his companions, Tang’s wife filed a motion to dismiss the Chief Justice of the court for violating legal procedures.

With the specter of serious political and social unrest looming before officials in the face of China’s economic recession, such Christian protests could add to the government’s unease over the growing number and influence of house church Christians.

Report from Compass Direct News